How are they using it?
Departments are tweeting about traffic situations, ground searches, descriptions of missing children and vulnerable adults, and crime information — such as suspect descriptions. During the recent Tamil protests in Toronto, Burrows used Twitter to keep people informed about street closures and raised awareness of related traffic issues. Toronto has also found tweeting useful for media relations.
"When I'd get called out to a collision scene, almost from the start, my phone would start ringing," Burrows explained. "I didn't have any information to offer until I went to look. With Twitter, I'm able to let media know this is what's going on, I'm on my way and I'll let you know when I get there. Since then those calls have stopped. It's a lot better for time management and information dissemination." Milwaukee also uses the service to recognize its employees. A recent tweet states, "Amazing job by Milwaukee police dispatcher finding rape victim," and includes a link to Fox6 News for more information.
Unfortunately, like most technological advances, Twitter does not come without problems. Earlier this year, the Texas Attorney General shut down a phony Austin Police Department site which had been running for almost a year. Austin wasn't aware of the site until a reporter called Public Information Officer Sgt. Richard Stresing and said she was following him on Twitter. "I asked, 'How can you follow us on Twitter? We don't have a Twitter account,'" explains Stresing. Most of the posts were harmless and Stresing believes it was a joke. "Luckily they didn't say anything that got people in an uproar," he says. "If it continued, they could say or do something that could put the public in fear for their lives or safety, and that's not right."
Twitter is an external social networking (ESN) site, meaning it's open and available to all Web users. Verification isn't required prior to creating a profile and followers have no way of knowing whether the user is authentic. Designed for interaction between friends and family, concerns over using Twitter to release sensitive public safety information has been growing. "One of the risks for law enforcement is security," Mitchell explains. "In terms of unsecured social networking sites, the disadvantage would be the lack of security and the fact as these sites stand now, people can post this information and send bogus messages out portraying to be someone they are not. That can cause panic."
Mitchell explains public information needs to be three things: 1) Accurate, 2) Secure and 3) Timely. Another concern with using an ESN is it increases the chance inaccurate information can be disseminated. Even providing factual information can be tricky.
"It could prevent law enforcement from making official notifications of death or injuries to next of kin," Mitchell says. Giving out too much information could also be a problem. Once the information is sent it becomes part of the public log.
"I can see agencies sending out something by mistake and once you send something out you can't get it back," Whittemore explains.
Other, more secure options are becoming available, however. For example, the company Nixle recently unveiled Municipal Wire — a new service that offers the benefit of sites like Twitter, but adds the security, reliability and precision public safety needs.
As technology changes, police departments are given more tools to connect with their community. Social networking services, such as Twitter, allow agencies to quickly and easily send out information directly from the source inviting stronger communication and relationships with the public.
"I love it; the more people that want to follow [the better]," says Burrows. "I'm humbled by the people who want to hear what we're saying. It's a great tool. The more people who want to hear about road safety, it's a great thing for us." Although security continues to be a concern, Twitter remains popular. "If you would have told me two years ago where this was going to go I wouldn't have believed it," explains Whittemore. "From there, especially in the last six months to a year, it's exploded."